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Liberals' referendum promise hangs over TransLink future

TransLink board chair Nancy Olewiler hopes the re-elected B.C. Liberal government soon clarifies its plans for a referendum on increased transit funding.

"The premier made that commitment and I'm waiting like everybody else to find out what that actually means," Olewiler said Wednesday following TransLink's annual general meeting.

Olewiler said there's considerable skepticism about a referendum on paying more taxes for transit after the defeat of the harmonized sales tax.

The promised referendum in November 2014, at the same time as municipal elections, was pledged in the B.C. Liberal platform with few details.

Transit advocates fear voters will block new funding and leave the system unable to expand.

During the election campaign, Transportation Minister Mary Polak suggested voters wouldn't have a veto over all new funding – they'd have to approve some new revenue source for TransLink from a menu of options.

Olewiler said that would have been "wonderful." But Premier Christy Clark quickly contradicted her minister and emphasized no new money for TransLink would be extracted from residents without their consent in the referendum.

Newly elected B.C. Liberal MLA Peter Fassbender is expected to play a significant role in the debate within government but said Thursday he can't predict how the referendum promise will play out.

"Everybody's saying 'What's the question?' I don't know because we haven't done the work to formulate what it is and where we want to go. But I don't think we should be afraid of it."

Fassbender said government might as a first step decide on short-term funding that would bridge TransLink through while more complex details of  longer-term options are worked out, possibly over "five or six years."

TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis said it's relatively easy to get public agreement on what transit improvements are needed, but more difficult  to hammer out consensus on a fair and equitable way to pay for it.

"You can have all sorts of ideas, but if they don't resonate and aren't supported by the people who actually pay the taxes and fees, we're hooped," Jarvis said.

"There's so many options with respect to what question you put forward and what you're asking the public. If that's the direction we're going, what does it mean?"

While TransLink has focused in the last two years on cost savings, Jarvis said that won't solve the need for much more money to expand the system.

He said new funding is needed because TransLink's gas tax has declined and is unsustainable and other sources like fares and property tax are maxed out.

"You can't save your way to growth," he said. "We have one million more people coming to this region and half a million more jobs. We need to be ready for that growth."

One of the more contentious funding ideas is road pricing, and both Olewiler and Jarvis continue to talk up the idea, while saying it would depend on political support.

Jarvis said both transit fares, through the new Compass card system, and road tolls could be used to control congestion by pricing travel differently at different times and routes, to encourage more trips to shift to off-peak times or underused routes.

"Everyone benefits," he said. "It improves reliability for the existing user and there's less investment, less infrastructure requirements to meet the same demand."

Such smarter transportation funding solutions are being explored in other countries, Jarvis said, and can make the system more efficient while raising the additional money required.

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart said if taxpayers won't pay for more transit they face not just much worse congestion but bigger bills to upgrade the road network.

"If we cannot find a solution to this it will cost us way more as a region to build the roads necessary to replace the transit that we're not willing to fund," Stewart said.

"At least now the politics can be set aside and we can start looking at the public policy questions, which are enormous."

TransLink board chair Nancy Olewiler, chief financial officer Cathy McLay and CEO Ian Jarvis fielded questions at an annual general meeting Wednesday.    Jeff Nagel photo

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